Charting a course in song: The musical dedicated to the humble A to Z

Phyllis Pearsall, the fanciful creator of London’s most famous street atlas, is now the subject of a musical

Ticket-holders heading for a new musical in south London this month will probably check the theatre’s whereabouts first: and while the young and dextrous may consult their phones and tablets, many, fittingly, will cling to their A-Z, the street guide that revolutionised travel in the capital when it first appeared in the 1930s. Its compiler, Phyllis Pearsall, was an artist who combined a dogged accuracy with a creativity that also informed her painting and a tendency to embellish her biography. Pearsall’s life story has now been put into song by playwright Diane Samuels and composer Gwyneth Herbert, with Peep Show’s Isy Suttie portraying her over several decades. And with geography, history, art and fantasy on their side, the team behind The A to Z of Mrs P have been having fun. 

Pearsall used to say that her artistic skills prompted the street-mapping project. Her upbringing had taken her all over Europe, and she had married a friend of her brother Tony, living in Spain and Paris, but left him abruptly in Venice, after eight years of marriage. Settling alone in London, she took commissions to paint pictures of the homes of the wealthy, to get by. “Her version of the A-Z story was that [it all started when] she got lost looking for a house she had been asked to paint,” says Herbert, who is best known as a singer-songwriter. “It’s a great story, but it isn’t true,” adds Samuels, and the two dissolve into laughter, which happens a lot: they share a gift for merriment that is fed by Mrs P’s eyebrow-raising mythology. In reality, the driver behind the London A-Z was Phyllis’s father, a Hungarian Jew who had founded the map publisher Geographia.

Far from being the first street guide in the world, the A-Z copied a Manhattan guide. And while Mrs P claimed to have trudged up and down each of London’s 23,000 roads as groundwork, in fact she conducted a great deal of research in local records offices. Her innovations may have saved lives, however. She pioneered the inscribing of house numbers on maps: fire and ambulance crews looking for  No 2 no longer found themselves outside No 502, and speeding the wrong way.

When Herbert and Samuels visited the company that still produces the A-Z, they learnt about its enlightened founder, amid paintings by her, hung from floor to ceiling. “Phyllis ran the company on the John Lewis model,” says Herbert. “There are still men of retirement age working in the company who have been there since leaving school at 15.”

Samuels takes up the tale: “She made it a charitable trust. All the workers got the benefits of the profits.”

Phyllis was on the move again, this time in the opposite direction from that of her father, a less inclusive and more traditional boss. Latterly, she also chose to make a woman her companion for life. Increasingly interested in these family dynamics, Samuels was much helped by Tony, and by his daughter, Mary West, who told Herbert and Samuels about her aunt’s tendency to attend exhibitions of her own paintings in national costumes, on one occasion bowling up in full flamenco gear.

People in transit also occupied Samuels in her best-known play to date, 1993’s Kindertransport, which is currently being revived on a nationwide tour. It tells of young German children hastily bundled off to Britain before the outbreak of the Second World War, sometimes to kind homes, but also, in some cases, to misery and abuse.

As with the story of Mrs P, Samuels found there was mythology to dismantle, including the notion that it was preferable for children to be sent away from hostilities than to stay in cities at risk, with their parents. In reality, she says, if children are asked whether they would rather be with their mothers and fathers, or in a safe place far away, they invariably say they would rather die with their parents than survive without them.

Herbert, although a songwriter almost since she could walk, long had an inbuilt resistance to musicals (with the exception of West Side Story): they “conjured up saccharine,” she says. But her narrative song cycle The Sea Cabinet, commissioned by Aldeburgh Music last summer, and the resulting album, showed her moving in the direction of the form. Auspiciously, The A-Z of Mrs P song “Lovely London Town”, which surfaced early in the evolution of the show, has already won a musical theatre songwriting award.

The A-Z of Mrs P is the first major musical by a female lyricist and composer team, and Herbert and Samuels are aware of the importance of that landmark, in a tradition dominated by male partnerships from Lerner and Lowe to Lloyd Webber and Rice. Unlike those relationships in which the lyricist presents a completed book to the composer and leaves them to get on with making the music fit, the pair worked organically, building the show by pushing round a cast of little plastic figures, borrowed from a Wizard of Oz set.

And which one was Phyllis? Dorothy, of course.

‘The A-Z of Mrs P’, Southwark Playhouse, 21 Feb-29 Mar (southwarkplayhouse.co.uk); ‘Kindertransport’ (kindertransport.co.uk) tours to 29 Mar.

Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams' “Happy” was the most searched-for song lyric of 2014
musicThe power of song never greater, according to our internet searches
Arts and Entertainment
Roffey says: 'All of us carry shame and taboo around about our sexuality. But I was determined not to let shame stop me writing my memoir.'
books
Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Transformers: Age of Extinction was the most searched for movie in the UK in 2014

film
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Ronson has had two UK number two singles but never a number one...yet

music
Arts and Entertainment
Clara Amfo will take over from Jameela Jamil on 25 January

radio
Arts and Entertainment
This is New England: Ken Cheeseman, Ann Dowd, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in Olive Kitteridge

The most magnificently miserable show on television in a long timeTV
Arts and Entertainment
Andrea Faustini looks triumphant after hearing he has not made it through to Sunday's live final

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

    Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

    Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog
    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
    Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

    Finally, a diet that works

    Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
    Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

    Say it with... lyrics

    The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
    Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

    The joys of 'thinkering'

    Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
    Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

    Monique Roffey interview

    The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
    DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
    Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

    How we met

    Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

    Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

    Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
    Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

    Who does your club need in the transfer window?

    Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month